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Why do some nouns need to be in the plural for that structure to work, while some are ok in the singular? E.g.: I love pizza, I love beef, etc.

I always thought it was a matter of countable x uncountable, but "cakes", for example, is countable.

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10 Answers 10

122

Often the countable and uncountable versions of an English noun will refer to different things. For example, "hamburger". If you say,

I love hamburger

it means that you enjoy the actual ground meat, in all its various uses. On the other hand,

I love hamburgers

means you like the specific use of ground beef in a hamburger, with the bun, lettuce, pickles, tomato, etc. You can also say:

I love a good hamburger

to refer to the specific object, with the relevant qualifiers.

In a similar way:

I love chicken (the meat)
I love chickens (the animal)

I love television (the programs on television)
I love televisions (the electronic device)

These distinctions seem idiomatic and can only be learned by exposure, memorization, and practice.

However (in general) when a noun's countable form and uncountable form both refer to (more or less) the same thing, it seems you use the uncountable form to refer to the generic or overarching concept, and you use the countable form to refer to specific instances or examples of that thing. With cake:

I love cake (cake in general)
I love the cakes Mary served at her party (those specific cakes)

I love coffee (coffee in general)
I love the coffees from Brazil (the various varieties of coffee from Brazil)

Note also a similar use when talking about wishes or desires:

I'd love some cake.
I'd love a cake.

As with anything in English, there may be exceptions.

  • 49
    +1 I do see a subtle difference between I love cake and I love cakes. The first means I love to eat the food known as cake whereas the second sounds more like it is about the concept of individual cakes—an appreciation for their beauty, and the effort of the baker that they represent, for example. – 1006a May 18 '17 at 1:35
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    +1 "I love cake" means I love the food itself, the cake material. "I love cakes" means I love all of what makes up a cake: the frosting, the outside, the roundness, etc. – daboross May 18 '17 at 3:15
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    I've never heard 'I love hamburger' used in the same way as 'I love chicken/beef/etc'. I don't think it can be used in the same way. – pyro May 18 '17 at 9:03
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    @Pyro In the US, it's a regional thing - some places you go to the store for a pound of hamburger, others for a pound of ground beef. – T.J.L. May 18 '17 at 13:14
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    As someone who married a vegetarian, I can assure you I've said "I love hamburger" before. – corsiKa May 18 '17 at 13:43
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The general rule (which I am coming up with as I write) is this:

In referring to a general state of affairs, when nouns are countable and uncountable (pizza, bread, coffee, etc.), the uncountable noun usually will be used. The countable one is used for a specific quantity.

"I love pizza" but "Today I ate three small pizzas".

Love is a splendid thing. I have had three loves in my life.

It's that simple.

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    No, cars is always countable as a noun. You need to work on the countable/uncountable idea. It's very similar to Spanish. – Lambie May 17 '17 at 20:12
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    @SanDiago - Maybe it would help to understand if we called non-count nouns by their other name: mass nouns. "Car" is always countable because cars are always distinct things. But most things that are non-count are things that can be a general mass: flour, sand, wood, food, etc. – stangdon May 17 '17 at 22:15
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    A criterion for uncountable things (or "matter") is that a part retains the nature of the whole. A piece of a car is not a car - and you can't drive it. A piece of a cake is still a cake in that you can eat it exactly as you can eat the whole cake. – Titou May 18 '17 at 10:28
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    @Titou: That's often true, but it's not a perfect criterion. For example, we typically say "I love mashed potatoes" rather than "I loved mashed potato". – ruakh May 19 '17 at 22:11
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    @Glen_b: You're not alone in that, but you're definitely in the minority. – ruakh May 22 '17 at 3:13
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Note that "I love cakes" sounds entirely natural to me, though it has a different nuance.

Cake is the uncountable term for the stuff cakes are made of, so saying you love cake implies that you love the stuff cakes are made of. This is what you're likely to say if you're talking about them as food.

Saying you love cakes implies that you love the cakes themselves, as whole things. This suggests that the nature of a cake as an individual item, perhaps the presentation or the associated experience, factors into your enjoyment.

With "I love cars", you're talking about whole cars. Saying "I love car" sounds really odd because cars aren't generally useful or talked about outside of their whole forms. The closest you might find is a mechanic saying "I love car parts".

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    No, I love car is weird just like I love berry is weird or any other number of countables. – Lambie May 19 '17 at 12:57
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    @Lambie You say no, but you seem to be agreeing with what I wrote. – Veedrac May 19 '17 at 13:18
  • I love berry is fine if you're construing berry appropriately – something which is rather less likely with car :-) – snailboat May 20 '17 at 12:02
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Incidentally, cake is one of those strange words.

I love cake. → I love pieces of large cake.

I love cakes. → I love whole individually sized cakes.

Individual cakes are rare these days except for cupcakes; but we recall the word because of the stock phrase "selling like hotcakes", where "hotcakes" doesn't mean "hot cakes" anymore but "pancakes".

  • I love pieces of large cake? That is very odd. I love large pieces of cake, however, is not. – Lambie May 21 '17 at 15:25
  • @Lambie: you're right large would normally not be there. I stuck the word in to be clear as to the meaning rather than the saying. – Joshua May 22 '17 at 0:22
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You're on the right track with thinking of it as countable or uncountable. Consider the following difference:

I love to eat pizza.

I love to eat pizzas.

The first specifies that enjoy eating an uncountable amount of pizza. In this case, it means a portion of a whole.

The second sentence implies that I enjoy consuming multiple pizzas (in one sitting). So in general, you use the plural form when talking about an amount that could be more than one.

Here's another example:

I own a red car.

I love blue cars, too.

I would love to own a blue car.

I would love to own blue cars.

In the first sentence, I am specifying that I own (at least) one red car, so I use the singular.

In the second, I'm talking about every blue car, so I use the plural.

In the third sentence, I want to own one blue car, so I use the singular.

In the last example, I want to own multiple blue cars, so I use the plural.

1

A piece of cake or pizza can still be enjoyed by the average eater (and it might be the preferred form), while a piece of car is only enjoyable to those with niche interests (car fixing, collecting, crafts, recycling) ...

1

Interestingly, “I love cupcakes.” uses the countable form. Similar your initial note, I might ask for “some cake” or “a [size-indication] piece of cake.”

So I think what I love naturally uses the same form as what I refer to when I eat it.

1

Simple version of what has been said - still may be useful.

When a term "xxx" may refer in common use to both a substance or to items made from that substance, then singlar or plural versions may apply eg

  • "I like cake" - I like the substance

  • "I like cakes" - I like the items

or

  • I especially like crottled greep brain. <- the material

  • I especially like crottled greep brains. <- the whole brains

When a term "xxx" may refer in common use only to items and not the parts or materials that they are made from then only the singlar version applies eg

  • I like aeroplanes

but not

  • I like aeroplane

When a term "xxx" (possibly qualified) may refer in common use solely to a material or substance used to form an item then

  • only the singular applies when the reference is to xxx as a material

    • I like peach juice
      (and never "peach juices" except in extremely niche situations.)

    • Contrived exception: "Of all the drinks in your collection I liked the various peach juices."

0

I love cake: when used like this, you're referring to an uncountable amount of cake (or, in this case: the very nature of cake itself). In that sense, you could say: I ate **much** cake because I love cake.

On the other hand, in I love hamburgers, you're referring to a countable number of hamburgers. Analogously to the above, you might say: I ate **many** hamburgers because I love hamburgers.

  • "I ate much cake" sounds ungrammatical to me, but if you change it to "I ate too much cake vs "I ate too many hamburgers" it works. Native British English speaker, south-eastern dialect. – Peter Taylor May 20 '17 at 15:58
  • I love pieces of large cake??? I love large pieces of cake. Please. And individually sized cakes are usually called cupcakes. – Lambie May 20 '17 at 16:08
  • -1. The plural is also a mode of generalization. I love cars means something like "I love everything about cars, how they look, how they're designed, their engines, their exhaust manifolds, their interiors, their ...)". – Tᴚoɯɐuo May 20 '17 at 18:17
-3

Excellent question. Think about adding an infinitive into the sentence and it might make more sense:

I love *to eat* cake.
I love *to drive* cars.
I love *to eat* apples.

As to why, I don't have a concrete answer as to why it is. It might come to me though.

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    Isn't it possible to say, "I love cakes."? I think this is the countable noun grammar rule. I love duck. That means I love to eat duck, while "I love ducks." means I love the animals. – WRX May 17 '17 at 17:59
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    Note that "to eat cake" isn't a "prepositional phrase". That to is an infinitive marker, not a preposition. Also note that there's nothing wrong with I love to eat cakes (or I love to eat duck and I love to feed ducks, come to that). – FumbleFingers May 17 '17 at 18:06
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    @Willow - What you said about duck vs ducks is true, but what about when we change ducks to almonds? "I love almonds" means I love to eat almonds, but "I love almond" means I love the flavor of almond. This is a tough nut to crack. P.S. This could somehow be related to serving size, too. We say "I love cake, I love pizza, I love pie, I love pineapple," but we often eat part of the whole when it comes to those foods. Yet when the items are more personal-sized, we often use the plural (e.g., "I love cupcakes, I love meatballs, I love plums"). Don't ask me to explain "I love bread." – J.R. May 17 '17 at 18:14
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    @Lambie: I doubt many native English speakers would perceive any semantic difference between I love to eat cake and I love to eat cakes (I certainly don't). But we'd all definitely distinguish between I don't like duck and I don't like ducks. – FumbleFingers May 17 '17 at 18:23
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    Could the difference of opinion between @Lambie and Fumblefingers be related to what things get called "cake" in different parts of the world? I would not say "I like cakes" without additional context, but where I live (Pacific Northwest), cakes are ALWAYS sized for multiple people. Single-serving "cakes" are called cupcakes here, and we would never say (for instance) "I have a dozen cakes in the oven. On the Great British Baking Show, people did refer to their cupcakes as "cakes," though. I could imagine them saying "I like cakes." – Adam May 17 '17 at 20:30

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